Dealing with Death in Later Life: Terror Management Perspectives on Aging

You might wonder what protection of self-esteem and cultural worldviews has to do with death. Defense of these constructs are referred to as distal defenses (see glossary). Although not logically or semantically related to death, distal defenses provide protection against existential anxiety by enabling people to view themselves as valuable contributors to a meaningful and enduring universe. Other, more direct defenses against death also exist, referred to as proximal defenses (see glossary). These include more logical attempts to cope with death anxiety that are directly related to distancing one’s self from death: Eating healthier, exercising, and taking other steps aimed at delaying physical decline and death. Proximal defenses tend to surface when death is in focal attention; because of the intense anxiety associated with death, people prefer to push death into the distant future, and increasing one’s intentions to engage in healthy behaviors and denying factors associated with early death and embracing factors associated with longevity (for a review, see Goldenberg & Arndt, 2008) are two common ways of doing this. Distal defenses surface when death is no longer in focal attention; when death thoughts linger on the fringes of consciousness, people bolster their cultural worldview and self-worth (see Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999, for an overview of this dual model of defense against death).

Terror management in late life

When we consider that younger adults perceive the future as more expansive than older adults (Lang & Carstensen, 2002), it seems logical that responses to thoughts of death would also vary as a function of age. Given the defensiveness that younger adults exhibit when reminded of death, despite their more expansive view of the future, it seems likely that older adults, whose time perspective is more limited, would be even more bothered by reminders of death and its encroachment. Additionally, increased experience with death via the passing of loved ones or awareness of one’s own significant health problem(s) would seem likely to create a chronically heightened state of mortality salience (see glossary). To make matters worse, inevitable changes in cultural values may leave their cultural worldviews outdated and less effective. Older adults are also likely to be less able to meet cultural standards of beauty, strength, or productivity, which could negatively impact self-esteem. Extrapolating from the defensiveness and aggression observed among younger participants, we might envision roving gangs of angry, defensive older adults.

However, although the occasional grumpy older adult is not unheard of, anyone with substantial exposure to older people is aware that later life is not usually characterized by anger and resentment. Before we get too worried about defensive, death-fearing older adults, recall the keys to effective terror management. Doing so suggests a more optimistic trajectory of advancing age. Older adults may have had greater opportunities to establish and maintain their cultural worldviews and self-worth and may thus be better equipped to deal with both life and death. Perhaps as a result, older adults indicate greater positive affect and lower negative affect than younger adults (e.g., Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998), and are less prone to most psychological disorders than younger adults (e.g., Kessler et al., 2005), suggesting generally intact psychological well-being.

Aging may contain many bittersweet moments, presenting opportunities for poignant reflection on one’s life. Retirement can be viewed as a time to look back on one’s achievements and consider future opportunities for focusing on hobbies and relationships. On the other hand, some may see retirement as the time they have to let go of the career that defined them and hope that they will find a way to fill the days, perhaps occasionally feeling as though their best days are behind them. Luckily, we know that development and adaptation do not stop in later life, so when faced with the transitional periods of adulthood, people make transitions as well. Developmental shifts in how people cope with the problem of death are likely an important part of aging – it seems unlikely that 80 year olds would think of mortality in the same way 18 year olds do.

Although much terror management research has used college aged students, and those in their 30s, recently, older adults have been included in this research. In terms of explicit fear of death, research suggests that, with age, people report lessening death-related anxiety (e.g., DePaola, Griffin, Young, & Neimeyer, 2003). However, terror management research suggests that self-reported death anxiety does not always accurately reflect how people respond to mortality salience; in fact, younger people reporting lower death anxiety have responded more defensively to death reminders (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1995). So at the outset of research concerning older adults’ terror management strategies, it was unclear whether older adults would be less responsive to reminders of mortality, more responsive, or responsive in a different way.

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